Dozens of people have been killed in Lebanon’s worst terrorist attack this year after a double suicide bombing in south Beirut upended a fragile peace.
The health ministry said 43 people had died and 239 had been wounded in the twin blasts on Thursday, which targeted the Shia-majority district of Burj al-Barajneh. It was the first major suicide bombing to strike the country since a similar attack in January that targeted an Alawite area in the northern city of Tripoli. The number of casualties is likely to rise due to the severity of the attack.
The terrorist group Islamic State (Isis) claimed responsibility for the attack on social media, saying the first bomber had parked an explosives-laden motorcycle in the neighbourhood and a second bomber detonated his suicide vest in the gathering that arrived after the first attack.
In a statement, Isis said the aim of the attack was to kill Shia Muslims. Local media identified the three suicide bombers, saying two of them were Palestinians and one Syrian. Burj al-Barajneh is a heavily populated, poor and crowded neighbourhood that is often associated with Hezbollah. It was not possible to verify Isis’s claim of responsibility.
Lebanon’s prime minister, Tammam Salam, said: “We condemn this cowardly criminal act that can never be justified, and we call on the Lebanese to be more watchful and united against strife.”
The government declared Friday a day of national mourning and the education minister ordered all schools and universities in the country to close.
A witness from the area said the first bombing occurred near a bakery on the crowded street as people left a nearby mosque after sunset prayers, with the second attack taking places minutes later about 50 metres away.
“There were bodies on the ground, on cars, on motorcycles,” he told the Guardian. “On the floor there were bodies, flesh fragments, heads and feet.”
Footage from the scene of the blast showed chaos, destruction and flames. The wounded were taken to nearby hospitals and the Lebanese army set up a security cordon in the area.
The army said in a statement that the first bomber had struck at 6pm. A third suicide bomber had been found dead at the scene, having died before he could detonate his own vest, it said.
“I carried four martyrs from the scene,” one man told local TV, his clothes caked in blood as he sat on the ground near the site of the bombing, having rushed to the scene after hearing the first explosion.
“There was a lot of destruction,” another witness told the Guardian. “The area is always crowded and the buildings are right next to each other, and people have been killed by glass and bricks falling on them. If it was a bigger explosion, hundreds could have died.”
“When I got there there was flesh scattered at the scene, chaos, destruction, broken glass, broken balconies,” he added.
The southern suburbs of Beirut, known as Dahiyeh, suffered from a series of suicide bombings from mid-2013 until last year after the military and political organisation Hezbollah announced that it was intervening in the war in Syria alongside forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Those attacks were claimed by various terror organisations including the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a local al-Qaida affiliate, and Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian wing of al-Qaida. In previous claims of responsibility, they have said the attacks are revenge for Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria.
The entrances to Beirut’s southern suburbs have long been protected by army and security force checkpoints, in an attempt to keep suicide bombers out.
Lebanon has been the scene of long-running political dysfunction. Parliament has failed to elect a president for a year and a half and the cabinet has done little to fill the political vacuum, with the country deeply polarised over the crisis in Syria.